When I first started to read romance again, after a thirty-year hiatus (ah, the “lost years”), one of the first romances I read was J. R. Ward’s Lover Eternal (2006), a romance novel I thought at once execrable and utterly compelling. Really, I couldn’t put it down, even though I was embarrassed for enjoying it and yet thinking how laughably bad it was. I can’t say I experienced the same reader self-hatred reading the first of Ward’s new non-vampiric “Firefighters” series, Consumed. Maybe it was the first flush of allowing myself to read romance again, but I’d gained some distance from Consumed in a way I hadn’t with Lover Eternal, though I read it with the same enthusiasm and rueful self-doubt. I can now recognize what makes Ward compelling: there’s a hyperbolic physicality to her characters, a gritty underbelly feel to her setting, and a rawness to it all that makes for a powerful formula. There’s NOTHING small-town cutsie or gentle about Ward’s world and she’s pretty fearless about writing her characters’ edginess. I liked that about her and I liked Consumed, though, at times, it bugged the heck out of me. Continue reading
I’ve waited a long time for a Molly O’Keefe romance and I’m awfully glad it arrived, finally, in The Tycoon. Which is not to say that Mo’K was idle. The direction her books had taken, however, was not to my taste or sensibility. I measure O’Keefe’s efforts and contemporary romance in general against the greatness that is her Crooked Creek Ranch series. Would this measure up? Delving into The Tycoon, I came smack-dab up against one of those O’Keefe directions I haven’t enjoyed: first-person narration, and a mannered one at that. After the first few pages, I thought The Tycoon was much like an HP with first-person narration. I had to readjust my expectations, give the book a fighting chance … because O’Keefe (I’d loved O’Keefe’s Super-romances so so much).
The Tycoon had one thing going for it that made me stay with it, a superb premise. As you may already know, I’ve been interested in the romance’s “dark moment” (when the HEA is most at stake for the romance couple) as one of betrayal, when one or the other of protagonists does something so wrong, the wrong-doing’s recipient, whether direct or caught in “friendly fire,” may not be able to forgive the other. The Tycoon opens with a doozy of a betrayal (infidelity is one betrayal that a romance cannot recover from, btw, unless in the hands of masters like Mary Balogh. I’m looking at you Counterfeit Betrayal). Continue reading
Nicole Helm’s Need You Now, first in the “Mile High Romance” series, at first appeared to be run-of-the-mill, contemporary, small-town romance, but proved more complex and interesting. Nevertheless, its opening wasn’t auspicious, with a scene of rugged he-men ribbing each other and indulging in scared-of-deep-communication man-talk. Ugh. Usually, in contemporary romance, these bros are, well, bros, or best friends, or business partners. In Need You Now, they are bearded, handsome “lumbersexuals”. Two are brothers, the hero Brandon, and his twin, Will, and their friend and business partner, Sam. They operate an “outdoor adventure excursion company,” Mile High, in the Colorado mountains, near the fictional town of Gracely. With much manly teasing, the jokester Will informs his austere, a polite way of saying “grumpy”, brother Brandon that they’ve hired a PR consultant to help promote their business, cue one cute heroine, Lilly Preston, freshly arrived from Denver. Lilly shows up, sparks fly, angst follows, much banter, and yet care, affection, and friendship grow, one glorious sexy time follows, then, a terrible sundering of the relationship and, the rest, as we say in the genre, is HEA. Continue reading
Amanda Ashby’s opening meet-cute to her new series, Sisters of Wishing Bridge Farm, won MissB over. Heroine Emmy Watson works hard to retain ownership of her deceased Aunt Ivy’s farm by turning the Connecticut venue into a wedding site and herself a wedding planner. Not everything has gone as planned, however, and she’s at the airport, waiting to pick up the best man whose local-inn accommodations were flooded by the groom’s gormless brother. There’s nought to be done, the best man’ll have to stay with her. Unfortunately, the airport terminal also coughs up a ghost from Emmy’s past, her one-week-end-stand, Christopher Henderson. Ashby’s talent for witty writing is evident in the re-meet-cute, as Emmy echoes Casablanca‘s Rick: “Of all the arrival gates in all the world, he walked into this one.” It turns out he not only walked into her arrival gate, he’s walking into her first wedding planner’s job as – the best man. Christopher too is non-plussed by seeing Emmy again, especially when she whisks him into her truck and drives away. As a travel writer, he’s seen some weird stuff, but this is a first: “He’d been in a lot of strange situations on his travels, but as far as he was aware, this was the first he’d ever been kidnapped by a wedding planner.” Ashby’s witty writing and pop-culture references engaged MissB and she looked forward to the novel.
Miss Bates’s first reading of a Mira Lyn Kelly romance (from the defunct KISS line) left her murmuring “meh, meh, meh”. Her recent Kelly read, May the Best Man Win, The Best Men #1, was a different experience. Miss B’s pre-reading prejudice was wary to say the least, especially in light of that rom-com cover. She side-eyed May the Best Man Win for several days before taking the plunge.
There are several ways you capture Miss B’s reading respect and enjoyment: you make her laugh; you do something tropish-ly clever or twisty; or, you write well. Kelly did all three. Premise-wise, May the Best Man Win is run-of-the-mill. Built around four wise-cracking late-twenties buddies who play best man to a groom-buddy, find love and make their way, bruised and battered (there be reasons) to the altar. The novel uses a clever framing device (Miss Bates LOVES a good frame), opening with hero Jase Foster, staunch bachelorhood in place, playing best man to buddy Dean Skolnic, as only a best man can, by holding a trash can as Dean vomits. The other three male friends the series will be built around show up as groomsmen. Jase is caring, but feeling pretty superior as he looks down at the nervous-as-wreck groom. At the end of the novel, with Jase’s own wedding-HEA, we round off with a torn sleeve and cut lip.
Theresa Romain writes despondent romances. Her characters are noble and good; her prose is elegant. Her hero and heroine are in a bad place when we meet them. Miss Bates likes that Romain doesn’t lay the angst on thick, however. Her characters’ sadness is perniciously persistent, like a low-grade fever. Things are wrong somewhere, but the appearance of things seems all right. Every time Miss Bates reads one of Romain’s romances, she frequently doubts she’ll finish it. And yet, each time, she does and is quite satisfied and rewarded by Romain’s HEA.
Romain’s latest, Fortune Favors the Wicked is typical of the author. In 1817, retired, blind Royal Navy Lieutenant Benedict Frost arrives in London, from on board “The Argent,” to sell his sailing memoir to publisher George Pitman. His minimal pension means he can’t offer Georgette, his sister, anything but a pittance. He hopes his soon-to-be-best-selling memoir will save the day when Georgette leaves their cousins’ home upon reaching her majority. He also learns that 50 000 pounds-worth of the king’s gold was stolen. When his manuscript is rejected, Benedict realizes the reward money may serve to help Georgette. He sets off for Derbyshire to recover the gold and win the reward money. Meanwhile in Strawfield, Derbyshire, we meet heroine Miss Charlotte Perry, vicar’s daughter. She too aims to ensure a young relation’s welfare: her ten-year-old niece, Maggie, named after Charlotte’s deceased sister, Margaret. Charlotte is also in search of the gold. Benedict and Charlotte’s meet-cute is inevitable.
Miss Bates’s heart went pitter-patter when Kelly Bowen’s hero in Duke Of My Heart first appeared. The heroine is ignorant of his duca-city and has “the vague impression of a worn greatcoat, battered boots, and a hulking bearing.” This is no ordinary ducal presence, suave, roguish, rakey, or even beta; this duke is PIRATICAL. And piratical is good: we don’t have enough ship-board romance and we need more! Alas, Maximus Harcourt, Duke of Alderidge is no more piratical than a Regency spinster. He is, however, a “hulking” presence and Miss Bates settled into Bowen’s Regency romance with smug satisfaction.
Maximus unexpectedly returns from India to an in-an-uproar household and Ivory Moore’s presence, a stranger in his rarely-occupied home. He is one irritated, confused duke. Max’s beloved eighteen-year-old sister, Lady Beatrice is missing; his Aunt Helen, beside herself; and, one naked, dead Earl of Debarry, aka the “Earl of Debauchery,” is tethered to his sister’s bed with red, satin ribbons. The scandal, she is HUGE! What was a spinster aunt to do but call on the ton’s detective-fixer, Ivory Moore, to hold back scandal and locate Beatrice.
After Miss Bates read the first few chapters of Nicole Helm’s Rebel Cowboy, she thought, “I get it. This is what happens when you cross Molly O’Keefe with Maisey Yates.” At times, Helm felt derivative; at others, uniquely her writerly self. Helm writes a hockey-playing hero and that’s one kind of hero Miss Bates never passes up. No one writes about the game’s darkness as O’Keefe does; if you’re looking for that kind of profound understanding in hero Dan Sharpe, you ain’t gonna get it. On the other hand, Helm offers a rich narrative, balancing guffaw-inspiring humour with wrenching angst.
Dan Sharpe’s and Mel Shaw’s legacies are Montana ranches. Mel’s cared for the land and animals her entire life: “On her eighteenth birthday … her father … told her, someday, what lay below would be hers. It had all been very Lion King.” Ten years later, Mel’s “Lion King” moment has turned nightmare: ” … a barely surviving ranch, a delinquent brother determined to burn every Shaw bridge, an injured and withdrawn father, thousands of dollars in medical bills, and livestock that needed to be cared for … These days it felt more like a noose than a gift.” Mel leaves the Shaw ranch in brother Caleb’s less-than-capable hands to rent her ranching know-how to Dan, whose Chicago hockey career is imploding with rumours of cheating. Ranching expert meets ranching wannabe. Continue reading
Miss Bates had every reason to want to read Cathy Pegau’s Murder On the Last Frontier: feminist-writer heroine, wintry setting (MissB’s favourite!), blue-eyed deputy hero, and that gorgeous hat! Sailing from her native Yonkers, journalist Charlotte Brody arrives in 1919 Cordova, Alaska, to join her doctor-brother, Michael. Charlotte’s plans are to write about northern frontier life as it confronts twentieth century American concerns: financial boom-times, women’s changing roles, mechanization, and the “soon-to-be-voted” Volstead Act. Charlotte is a proponent of women’s rights, especially the struggle for suffrage, and writes from that unique perspective, sending dispatches to Yonkers’s Modern Woman Review. Cordova is a small, but growing northern frontier town with sufficient amenities and a population, especially its upper echelons, who prides itself on its successes and attractions. Michael introduces Charlotte to the Kavanaughs, town mayor and wife, his fiancée Ruth and her most respectable father, the Reverend Bartlett and his missus. Continue reading
Miss Bates’ first great rom-love was the historical. Given the recent contemporary romance glut, she’s grateful for any historical romance writers she discovers. Alissa Johnson is not new to the genre (début publication dates 2008), but certainly new to Miss Bates. A Talent For Trickery is first in the Victorian-Age-set Thief-Takers series. Johnson’s characterization, plot, and theme reminded Miss Bates of Lisa Kleypas’s Hathaways (if you liked the Hathaways, you’re going to like this). Viscount Owen Renderwell arrives at Willowbend House, Norfolk, with his detecting partners, Sirs Samuel Brass and Gabriel Arkwright. He is reluctantly welcomed by his former-thief-turned-agent-for-the-crown partner, Miss Charlotte “Lottie” Bales, formerly Walker, daughter of Will Walker, notorious criminal. In eight years, Charlotte built a new life and persona for herself and her family. Owen reminds her of days of yore when she helped her father swindle London society. She shares a home with Esther, her sister, and Peter, their younger brother, for whom Charlotte would make any sacrifice to keep him from discovering the truth of their father’s life. Abandoned by their mother, father perishing while aiding Owen recover a kidnapped duchess and her jewels, Charlotte’s memories of working alongside and yearning for Owen return in full emotional force. Owen is equally affected, but his mission carries more weight than his physical desires and emotional yearnings. Mrs. Maggie Popple was murdered and Charlotte’s father’s letters and journals may hold the key to solving the crime. Lottie has the talent and know-how to decipher Will Walker’s encryption.